Motorola ATRIX Review (Part 1)

Jonathan Morris
May 13, 2011

We’ve finally got our hands on Motorola’s new dual-core smartphone, but that’s not all; we’ve also been given all the accessories that makes the ATRIX much more than any old Android smartphone…

We couldn’t wait to get some photos online and our first impression, but you’ll have to wait for the full review so we can properly test the phone, as well as the accessories to consider how useful and practical they really are.

We were given the following:

  • Motorola ATRIX phone, including HDMI cable
  • ‘Work and Play Kit’ – with HD multimedia dock, wireless mouse, wireless keyboard and remote control
  • Standard charging dock
  • LapDock – portable keyboard/screen with 11.6-inch display, secondary battery and eight hours battery life

The phone is exclusive to Orange in the UK, and the network is currently offering the Work and Play Kit for free-£49.99 (SRP £129.99) when buying the phone on certain tariffs.

The LapDock will also be available at a reduced price on selected tariffs, with a normal suggested retail price of £299.99.

First impressions

It has to be said that the phone does disappoint in the looks department. It doesn’t feature the same attention grabbing designs of handsets like the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc, Samsung’s Galaxy S II or the forthcoming HTC Sensation (a phone that will also feature the same qHD-resolution display used on the ATRIX, namely 540×960 pixels).

Besides a faux carbon-fibre battery cover on the back, the phone merely looks like a larger version of the DEFY, but without any of the ‘life proof’ features such as water and dust protection. The DEFY justified its looks because of the ‘rugged’ nature, while the ATRIX looks rather dull as a high-end smartphone that can stand its own against anything the industry can throw at it.

However, that said, the ATRIX feels solid and the understated looks may count in its favour for the business market the ATRIX is primarily aimed at.

Inside the phone sits a powerful 1,880mAh battery, which – even with a larger resolution screen and a more powerful processor – should still mean the phone performs better than the high-end smartphones that make do with just 1,500mAh batteries. It’s not a huge increase, but to quote Tesco’s tagline, every little helps.

Booting up the ATRIX is quick, and when you do so you’re presented with a Motorola dual-core logo. The phone uses NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 chipset, with two cores running at 1GHz each. This isn’t just to run ordinary Android apps faster, but to also give it the power to operate the unique feature of the phone; Motorola’s Webtop application. But more on that later.

The 4-inch screen isn’t the biggest on the market today, but it is the first phone to go on sale with a qHD display. This ups the resolution from Motorola’s traditional 480×854 pixels to 540×960 pixels. It does make a huge difference, and once you get used to this you might begin to think that all the other smartphones, bar the iPhone 4, are disappointing.

It has to be pointed out that Motorola has opted to use a PenTile RGBW Matrix LCD display (see an explanation here), similar to the AM-OLED screens used in the Google Nexus One, Samsung Galaxy S and the HTC Desire up to Autumn 2010.

The reason for using such a screen is to reduce power consumption, and in the case of the screen type used here, increase the brightness. However, it does mean you have to compromise on overall screen quality. While it may be displaying a full 540×960 pixel image, it can’t display all the pixels. Solid colours get a ‘checkerboard’ effect, similar to dithering on screens with a limited palette, or the halftone effect used in print. Small text also loses definition.

It is noticeable and may prove to be an issue for users who need to work with small text (such as working with documents like spreadsheets) but for most of the time you will be holding the phone far enough away for the effect to be minimised to the point where it isn’t a real issue. If you’ve seen or owned one of the above mentioned handsets, you’ll already know whether it is something to be worried about, or not.

Only a longer usage of the phone will decide if it’s a worthy compromise, but if it means you can use the phone for longer between charges then it is probably going to be tolerable.

Compared to other Motorola handsets, the ATRIX is fast – and it isn’t as if the others are slow (like the Milestone 2 or the DEFY, the latter running at only 800MHz but still proving to be quick and nimble). Using the standard Motorola launcher is quick, scrolling through the apps totally lag-free and things like the gallery app have been given a facelift.

The (five-megapixel) camera is now quicker to use too, both for adjusting settings and modes to actually capturing the pictures themselves. You can also capture HD video at 1280×720 pixels.

Although five-megapixels and 720p video should be sufficient for most people, it doesn’t really match the high-standard set by the rest of the hardware – like the optical fingerprint reader integrated within the power button, for example. After a very simple and painless learning process, where the phone takes a ‘reading’ of your index fingers, you’ll now be able to unlock the phone with a single press and swipe of the finger.

Should you find the sensor fails to work, you can also enter a 4-digit PIN as a back-up. However, unless you swipe too quickly, the reader seemed to work perfectly every single time.

Unfortunately, the ATRIX only ships with Android 2.2 out of the box. An update to 2.3 will come, as Motorola promises at least one OS update after launch, but it may have been released too early to be included within the recent Google announcement that all new devices will be upgraded for at least 18 months after launch.

The ATRIX appears to have stacks of potential and even with its plain-Jane looks, I can imagine it will impress over the coming days.

Webtop & Media modes

Many phones now allow you to output the screen to an HD television via HDMI. Most simply mirror the screen, while others like the LG Optimus 2X can scale up to higher resolutions, by turning off the main display.

The ATRIX outputs an entirely unique display when used with the multimedia dock, or via the HDMI cable direct from the phone. It lets you view pictures and videos from a bespoke menu system on the TV, with the ATRIX display switching to a virtual remote control.

When used with the HD Multimedia dock, you get the additional option to go into Webtop mode. Built on Linux, which starts up automatically when connected, you get a TV screen that looks a bit similar to a Mac OSX desktop, giving you the ability to run applications within independent, scalable, windows.

These include a file manager, Firefox web browser and Facebook. Although you can’t install new applications yourself, Motorola could add new features and apps with subsequent software updates.

The Mac-like dock at the base of the screen is split between core phone apps on the left, and Webtop apps on the right. The phone display, which can be shown in a portrait or landscape window on the desktop, works in conjunction with the apps that run on the Linux side.

If it sounds a bit confusing, it isn’t really. The phone contains the necessary hardware to operate as a native-Android phone for normal use, or switch to the Webtop mode when connected to a TV or the LapDock, with the Android phone running as normal inside a window. There is a performance hit, but not so much that it feels sluggish and underpowered.

All of the data you access from the desktop mode is from the phone, including music, videos and pictures, so there’s no syncing of data between one and the other. This is what makes the ATRIX so clever; once you’re ready to go, undock the phone and off you go.

There are a few compromises, namely that while you can use the Firefox browser to view any web pages (including sites like BBC iPlayer and YouTube, as Flash support is included as standard) you must still view emails on the phone side, running within the confines of the phone screen. While you can scale the window up, or make it full screen, it’s still the same 540×960 (or 960×540) pixel screen scaled up to the 1280×720 pixel output for the TV.


Everyone is looking for the ‘killer app’ these days, and the ATRIX has it with the innovative LapDock. Although it is not cheap at £300, it could be considered a bargain if you look at it from the perspective of not needing to buy a full-blown laptop. You can get cheap netbooks, but they won’t be as thin and light as the LapDock.

The LapDock features an 11.6-inch screen, full size keyboard, trackpad and its own internal battery that can keep you going for up to eight hours. At the back is a fold out dock that takes the ATRIX, which provides the ‘brain’. Besides the security concern (namely having the phone hidden behind the phone screen), it’s an extremely clever concept. Why carry a separate laptop, which you must sync with your device, when the laptop can be an extension of your device?

As Motorola is first to market with such a device, there’s no real benchmark to compare against, yet. If the concept proves itself, you can expect other manufacturers to produce something similar.

The screen is bright and clear (but picks up reflections easily outdoors), and the keyboard is tactile and easy to use, but you are extremely limited on what you can do with the LapDock. For now, you can manage files you’ve got on the device, view the web or go on Facebook with a dedicated app. For everything else, you’re merely working from what you’d be accessing directly on the handset display anyway.

Of course, when docked, the keyboard, cursor keys and trackpad become ways to enter text and navigate around the phone, which is nice but hardly worth £300.

The LapDock is an awesome concept and it’s well built, but would anyone really want one? There are no apps like a word processor or spreadsheet (although you could use Google Docs via the web browser) and so you can’t really do much compared to an ordinary laptop.

To be a viable option, Motorola would need to cut the price to around £100-£150 and also add some more apps. Given the fact the LapDock contains no memory or processor, it must be possible to slash the price. The only problem is that Motorola probably won’t make enough to benefit from economy of scale, creating a catch 22 situation.

By comparison, the ‘Work and Play Kit’ gives the same experience on your home TV for a lot less money. This may be more useful day to day for letting you get online using your TV without buying some proprietary system, or upgrading to a new TV with Internet connectivity. However, even this may be too gimmicky to attract mainstream attention.

First impressions tell me that Motorola might have been too clever for its own good with the accessories, but they must be commended for developing them. If they do sell, it stands to reason that the second and third generation accessories will become more powerful and could then be looked at as possible replacements for a laptop or even a home PC.

But, it’s fair to say that we’re some way off from that day at the moment.

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